THE END OF ISIS?

Trump has vowed to take down ISIS, making this a promise during his presidential inaugural address on January 20. His willingness to treat Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, as allies brings the end of ISIS (aka: Islamic State/Daesh) closer to realization in 2017. But how can anyone truly defeat the Islamic State? It’s rather more than a conventional army and it has shown an uncanny ability to strike against targets in Europe as well as Iraq and Syria. Islamic State is fluid; it offering the semblance of an actual State, the ‘Caliphate’. But, it is also a ‘state’ of mind. It can inspire and indoctrinate already criminally inclined individuals, thousands of miles away from Raqqa or Mosul to perpetrate deadly attacks in Paris, Brussels, Nice, Berlin, Istanbul and more - they have even inspired lethal attacks in Fort Lauderdale and San Bernardino.

For at least two years, a coalition of NATO, Iraqi and Kurdish forces have tried to defeat the ISIS caliphate in Iraq and Syria. The Russians and Syrians (the Syrian government that is), have also targeted the Caliphate, liberating – but then losing again – the ancient city of Palmyra. The Russians even staged a concert there in 2016, highlighting the significance of the win. But, ISIS like other rebel groups, has used civilians to its advantage. ISIS has also exploited the weaknesses, the downright failures, of post-Saddam Iraq to establish a deep foothold into parts of the populations they have occupied. Like the Shabab in Somalia or Escobar cocaine smugglers in Colombia, they have made themselves relevant by addressing some of the local people’s grievances. This makes them difficult to eliminate. Bombing them to smithereens would be easy, but it would kill too many innocents. This would simply help ISIS find more recruits, both ready and angry enough to take up the struggle. 

Certainly, given that ISIS controls an actual territorial ‘state’, complete with its own currency and law – Sharia evidently – a military campaign is both possible and necessary. But, for ISIS not to re-emerge once ‘the dust has settled,’ any serious effort must target the socio-economic and political causes that have fueled its rise. As for the seed that gave birth to ISIS, there is a clear culprit. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the fateful decision to disband the official Iraqi Army. Many Iraqi officers and soldiers, especially those from elite forces such as the Republican Guard, ‘went underground’ in the first months of the occupation after being ‘fired’ by the U.S. appointed viceroy Paul Bremer in 2003. They were available to carry on the struggle!

How to Do It?
ISIS is aware that the only thing that has kept the Caliphate still around, is that it has controlled an area of at least 1.5 million people in Mosul alone. At its peak, ISIS is said to have controlled 60,000 square kilometers of territory and 10 million people. The Syrian army backed from the air by Russian jets, needed months to take back a portion of Aleppo, where a variety of self-described, mostly other Islamic rebels here dominated by al Qaeda, used the civilian population to their advantage as shields. This was an area of 80,000 people, 300,000 at its most inflated estimate. The Russian and Syrian forces were also operating in a hostile international context. The U.N, NATO, the United States and much of the European Union condemned the war for eastern Aleppo using threats of war crimes and alleging wide scale human right violations. Whereas rebels attacking the larger, liberated side of the city daily, shielded themselves by integrating amongst hapless Syrian civilians.

Little has been said so far, of very similar issues encountered by the various US backed forces, similarly trying to liberate civilian populated Mosul from ISIS in Iraq, including regular airstrikes, bombing and artillery. Then there is the nature of the ISIS enemy itself. As American Marines had already discovered earlier in Iraq, it’s not easy to confront dedicated religious fanatics, ready and willing to kill themselves – and others. To reduce the risk of having NATO – more than likely American – troops challenging ISIS on the ground, it would be necessary to deploy the air force in a series of raids to weaken the enemy. Yet, there are no assurances that once militarily defeated, the ISIS fighters won’t return. That’s where a more strategic approach is necessary, one that addresses the socioeconomic, rather than only the cultural and military aspects of the ISIS phenomenon. 

There had been unjustified euphoria, but no results, in the last months of 2016 as the US guided international coalition, fought ISIS in Mosul. It seemed like ‘anytime now’ the coalition would free the second largest city in Iraq, where the Caliphate established itself. Baghdad said it launched the offensive on October 17 of last year. The Americans hoped, even expected, to secure Mosul’s liberation before the end of Barack Obama’s mandate on January 20. Now, it’s up to Trump to finish the job. "Three more months" said Haydar Abadi, the Iraqi prime minister. But now, the Iraqi government is just shooting off numbers at random. The latest and most optimistic estimate is that ISIS will be forced out of Mosul within "six months, maybe a year."

In Syria, meanwhile, President Asad wants to target the remaining non-ISIS rebels. Ending the rebellion carries far greater political weight. The focus has changed from Aleppo to the last rebel stronghold: Idlib. It’s right at the border with Turkey. The various militants pushed out of their positions in the rest of the country have congregated there. The peace talks in Astana on January 18-19 have not produced any real deal. Some rebel groups sent representatives to the Russian sponsored conference, but many did not. Isis obviously, along with Al Qaeda’s proxies, together with other jihadist groups were not invited – they are excluded from peace talks yet militarily, they are the most potent. 

The Syrian government army plans to launch a major offensive that should, they hope, lead to the liberation of the entire region. It is an area that in recent years, starting after the ‘liberation’ of Homs, has become a haven for militants who have effectively given up. During 2016, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have regained many key areas held by the rebels. 

These involved intense and violent confrontations, both in the areas surrounding the capital Damascus or East Aleppo. They achieved victories thanks to aerial bombardments and ‘boots on the ground. They also set up "reconciliation" policies: the rebels would agree to abandon their positions, leaving heavy weapons behind in exchange for the opportunity to reach the province of Idlib with light weapons. They even used buses provided by the government. In return, the militias allowed pro-government civilians, trapped in the territories under their control, to seek refuge elsewhere. Idlib was the destination for most of the 35,000 including militiamen amongst the civilians evacuated from East Aleppo, at the end of last November.

Today the province of Idlib, near the border with Turkey, is almost entirely controlled by Islamist factions such as "Ahrar al-Sham" and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham" – the renamed al-Nusra, of al Qaeda). These groups are trying to strengthen their fragile alliances to prepare for another clash against the Syrian army, Hezbollah, Iranian Pasdaran and the Russian air force. Therefore, where ISIS is concerned, the mantra is that a well-functioning alliance with an effective military and diplomatic strategy can defeat militants. The fact that Washington and Moscow are talking again is significant. It means the Americans and Russians, and their respective allies, will finally be fighting in unison with the understanding that the Asad government’s survival and a unified Syria is the final goal. 

It might be easier to Beat ISIS than al-Qaeda - Militarily 
Unlike Al Qaeda, ISIS wants to impose Sharia from an actual State. This means it needs money and territory. That makes ISIS easier to hit. Under Trump, given his provocations, it might be thought that ISIS would react in targeting U.S. interests worldwide – and probably in the U.S. But, it’s easier to hit Europe, given that many potential ISIS terrorists have infiltrated EU borders exploiting the migrant and refugee routes. In pure Reagan style, if ISIS claims responsibility for such an attack, Trump might undertake a major and disproportionate counter-attack, in the form of bombs directly over the Caliphate, wherever it holds territory.
 
This might no doubt be welcomed to the cries of ‘Allahu Akbar’– at first – by ISIS. It will help generate recruits and further radicalize the militants. But, the second, third and fourth strikes might force ISIS to think again before launching another attack. This approach was best explained by the Sean Connery character in the 1987 Hollywood movie ‘The Untouchables’: “He pulls a knife, you bring a gun. If he (al Capone) sends one of your men to the hospital, you send one of his to the Morgue”. Caliph al-Baghdadi has little regard for the lives of other humans  just as the foot soldiers who target civilians in Paris night clubs, but his ‘generals’ certainly care about saving their own skin. To get rid of ISIS, then, it’s necessary to be tough and ruthless.

The military campaign on the ground must be combined with one over the Internet. ISIS launches its radicalization messages online. They must be intercepted. The Israelis blocked Iranian uranium centrifuges from working using a computer virus called Stuxnet, for example. Clearly, there must be a strong military offensive on the ground. The air force alone cannot achieve a victory in Mosul or Raqqa. But, a stronger Asad government in Syria will make it more difficult for ISIS to recruit. So, the military effort should be coordinated with an even more intense effort to help Syria rebuild its institutions. That’s where Trump’s agreement with Russia will be most fruitful. 

No doubt a coalition of European armies and the US for a massive ground force employed in Syria, would have a sure success in defeating ISISs in a traditional war. But, this would simply lead to another Afghanistan. The reality is that the fighters of Isis evaporate in the territory, disappearing among the population of cities, exactly as did the Taliban in Afghanistan. Without an agreement with Russia - and Iran - which has enabled Damascus to recover much of the territory, Western military occupation would be disastrous. First: with Syria and Iraq, possibly occupied by Western forces, religiously inspired terrorists would multiply. Second: when coalition forces withdrew, the ISIS fighters would come back, just as they did the Taliban. 

A Military Effort Alone, Just Won’t Work
ISIS cannot be defeated in a traditional conflict because you cannot fight or beat an ideology – especially if rooted in Islam. Despite apologists’ rantings, ISIS does base itself on the Qur’an; indeed, on a very strict reading of the Qur’an. It’s worth noting that if anyone were to establish a State based on a strict and literal reading of the Old Testament, the result would look a lot like the Caliphate. Nevertheless, the West, namely the US and its allies have used a flawed strategy to eradicate the ISIS. The US approach to date had (initially anti-Iran) been tied to an effort to topple President Bashar al-Assad, backing Saudi and Qatari even Turkey’s state support for Sunni Islamist militias, only shades more liberal than ISIS, while also targeting the Caliphate. Not only did this approach challenge Russia, which has a historic relationship with, and military bases in Syria since the days of the Soveit Union. It quite simply diluted American effectiveness against the more immediate goal of hitting the Caliphate. 

Moreover, President Obama was keen on maintaining a politically correct attitude at home. It was a hallmark of his presidency. The emphasis on interreligious dialogue is certainly politically correct, but its productivity has proven rather low. ISIS also took the United States by surprise, as much as it is a tangible product of the U.S’s invasion of Iraq. Saddam Hussein was hanged on December 30, 2006, when Iraq was already in the grip of the al-Qaeda terror and the sectarian vendettas, out of which al-Baghdadi previously an Al Qaeda chieftain, eventually was able to establish the foundation of ISIS and his Caliphate. The other problem is that, whether directly or indirectly, as Wiki-Leaks has revealed, it was actual U.S. policy to use ISIS to bog-down Damascus and Moscow in Syria. There are credible suspicions that Saudi and its Gulf allies were helping to fund ISIS amongst other Sunni militants. In other words, since ISIS is still around, it’s because the Americans – and some Europeans – were too busy facilitating the toppling of the Asad government, itself not an enemy of the west, rather than keep their eye on the real target: ISIS. 

Trump’s White House can be more effective. The clouds have dispersed. It has established the need to fight ISIS as the foreign policy priority. It will engage Russia to help achieve this goal. It has made it sufficiently clear that the U.S. will no longer try to effect regime-change in Damascus. In that sense, the war against ISIS can be won.

Drones, bombings and air raids alone, cannot stop the intentions of the Caliphate with claims to rule the whole region – if not the universe itself – based on an idealized and ideologized version of seventh century Islam. No number of boots on the ground in Iraq, Syria or even Libya – where it seems, as in Egypt and Afghanistan, that ISIS now has bases - would provide the certainty that the Caliphate might be defeated. There is always the problem of ‘freelance’ terrorists, who will continue to be inspired to channel whatever their grievances, through the simple message of the ISIS ideology. Many ISIS fighters could barely understand the basics of Islam. One was caught traveling to Syria from Europe with an ‘Islam for Dummies’ book in his bag. Intelligence operations have foiled many attacks, but they can’t foil every attack. 

At some point the problem of the ISIS sponsors must come up; that is the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Gulf emirates who identify with this strict Sunni orthodoxy. Even if they don’t reach the Caliphate directly, money flows freely from the Gulf to finance mosques, madrassas, Islamic cultural centers. It does this but also buys weapons and trains fighters, while proselytizing potential jihadists scattered everywhere, from Indonesia and the Philippines, to Bangladesh, Tunisia across the North African littoral to Morocco; to Egypt, France, Britain, Germany, Italy etc. Few have dared challenge this offensive, least of all the last (Nobel winning) resident of the White House. Norway, perhaps, may have taken a first step. It has suspended permission for a new grand mosque financed by Riyadh, unless the Saudis reciprocate by allowing a Christian church to be built in the Arabian Peninsula.

It is only when you cut those cash flows and end such hypocrisy and ambiguities, that ISIS and other groups like it, can be severely weakened. As for Iraq, there is the problem of the enhanced sectarianism of the post-Saddam era. That sectarianism angered Sunnis when the Shiites took power and ignored their needs in the north. At first, Mosul almost welcomed ISIS for bringing a level of order. Then there is Turkey and the Kurds. The heroic Kurds should ideally play a much smaller role. They cannot be the conquerors of ISIS, lest they further irritate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He wants a big chair at the ‘peace’ table to decide the fate of the region, which might even involve a formal redrawing of the frontiers of the Sykes-Picot agreement, of 1916. Erdogan is concerned that any Kurdish gains might create the precondition for the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish State that would amputate part of Turkey itself. These are problems, but they might be overcome by virtue of the superior threat posed by Islamist theocracy. Finally, the socio-economic gaps that have favored the Syrian revolt and that fuel the sectarian divisions beyond ideologies and differences of faith must also be addressed.

It would take many more papers to discuss the causes leading to the rise of ISIS. But, one often overlooked cause might be wealth distribution in the Middle East. In an analysis published on the genesis of terrorism after the attacks in Paris last November 13, the French economist Thomas Piketty illustrated the economic disparities present in the countries of the Middle East.

Piketty writes that the socio-political system of the Middle East has been weakened by the fact that most of the world's oil is found below the surface of a few sparsely populated nations. In the area between Egypt, Syria and Iran, some 70% of all the oil wealth is concentrated to countries that are inhabited by only 10 percent of the people occupying the entire area of the Middle East. 

Piketty refers to Qatar, UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman. These areas account for 60 percent of gross domestic product. Within these boundaries, says Piketty, a very small portion of the population controls most of the wealth while the remaining percentage, which include women and refugees, remain in a state of "semi-slavery." Therefore, the Middle East's economic situation has become a pretext for jihadism. The rise of ISIS is the most extreme form of that phenomenon. Terrorism born of these inequalities, continues Piketty, should be fought economically. The Western countries should prove to be interested in the socio-economic growth of the Middle East, not just the financial interests of its most powerful families. The way to do that, he says, is to ensure that revenues from the oil trade are used to finance the "territorial development" of the region, starting from better education.

That is all true. But the ISIS monster, an actual Frankenstein of socio-political phenomena, considering how it started as a direct outcome of the US invasion of 2003, must be stopped militarily first. It could then be contained with the socio-economic improvement prescriptions proposed by Piketty and others, if world leaders would apply themselves to such an outcome. 

Alessandro Bruno